When Your Preschooler Talks Back

Are you starting to hear “No!” or “Why?” every time you ask your child to do something? Welcome to another stage of preschooler-hood. Back talk is never pleasant, and sometimes can be downright embarrassing when it happens in public or when guests are present. To stop your home from turning into a battle ground, take a minute to understand the reasons behind back talk and how to tackle it.

Why It Happens

Preschoolers resort to talking back for many reasons; for example, your child might talk back because they’re cranky, tired, hungry, or undergoing a stressful transitional period. Back talk is often a way to express anger, frustration, fear, or hurt, or can simply be your child’s way of trying to exert some control over their life.

Strategies to Handle Back Talk

Being challenged by a 2 or 4-year-old at every turn can’t be fun, particularly when that defiance surfaces as rude back talk. Use the following strategies to nip back talk in the bud and teach your child how to communicate nicely:

  • Be a good role model. Don’t lose your temper if your child starts to act out and mouth off, and never respond in kind. Speak calmly and respectfully; not only would you be preventing the situation from escalating, you would also be demonstrating to your child proper behavior. Things you should avoid doing are verbally attacking your child, belittling your child, or condemning your preschooler or their behavior. Instead, define what the problem is, how to rectify it, and how to prevent it in the future.
  • Don’t negotiate. If your preschooler protests rudely, do not negotiate, compromise or discuss their opinion with them. For example, if your child rudely talks back while playing a game with you, stop playing and inform them that you will not play with them unless they talk nicely. If that doesn’t get them behaving, follow through on your promise. If you and your preschooler are out in public when the sassing begins, briefly and calmly tell them that being nasty won’t get them anywhere, take them to a quiet corner and tell them that if they don’t begin to behave there will be consequences, such as canceling a trip to the playground. Your child must see that you respect yourself enough and that you won’t accept being treated badly.
  • Acknowledge your child’s feelings. Back talk can be the result of anger or frustration, so let your child know that you understand and care about their feelings, but that you don’t approve of the way they’re expressing themselves. By letting your little one know that you empathize with them, you will effectively remove yourself from the role of the adversary and make your child see you as an ally. Focus on the message that your child is trying to convey. For example, if your child angrily refuses to pick up their toys while they’re coloring, ask them whether they are angry because they don’t want to stop coloring, and find a compromise that both of you can accept, such as having your child put away their toys after they’re done with what they’re doing.
  • Set boundaries. Your child should be made to understand what is okay to say and what isn’t. If your child’s response crosses the line, explain to them firmly, “We don’t talk that way. Please speak nicely.” Not setting and enforcing limits early on opens the door for defiant and rude behavior, and it is your responsibility to teach your child what’s acceptable and what isn’t, and to make sure that they stay in line.
  • Give your preschooler choices. Since back talk is often the result of young children wanting to assert their control, it might be a good idea to allow your child to take part in making certain choices where it would be harmless, such as which skirt to wear or what to have for lunch. Make sure to keep the choices you offer limited to two choices, ensure that they are acceptable ones, and respect your child’s decision once they’ve made their preference known. This will help limit back talk and keep your little one complacent.